Dutch must engage ‘political Islam’

The Dutch authorities must work to establish good relations with the political aspects of Islam. That is the conclusion of a report by the Dutch Scientific Council for Government Policy (WRR). The report, which was presented this week to Dutch Foreign Minister Ben Bot, has been released at a time when the EU is also dealing with the problem of a Palestinian government led by Hamas.

In recent years, a climate of fear and suspicion between the Muslim world and the west has led to distorted mutual perceptions. In this atmosphere, Islamic politics are often equated with the views and behaviour of anti-democratic and violent fundamentalists like Osama bin Laden. The WRR report argues that this image is unfair. Within Islam there are many more and varied political views.

Of course there are fundamentalists such as the Taliban and the followers of al-Qaeda, who advocate a literal interpretation of the Qu’ran and reject democracy and human rights. But Islamic politics also includes progressive movements and thinkers who emphasise the spirit rather than the letter of the Qu’ran and who often seek to justify democracy and human rights on the basis of Islam.

The report also draws attention to the fact that, over the years, many Islamic activist movements have gone through a process of moderation. Movements like the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt who – in the 1970s – were still calling for a radical overthrow of the secular state. Today they act as normal political parties willing to cooperate with others within the limits of a democratic system.

Pure Islam
This is not really new. But Dr Wendy Asbeek, one of the authors of the report, thinks that these facts need to be explained in the Netherlands today:
“In the Dutch media, we regularly hear opinion makers and experts claim that fundamentalist Islam is the only ‘pure Islam’. This calls for a counter-discourse that shows the diversity and especially the dynamics of political Islam.”What are the consequences of this analysis for Dutch government policies? The report calls for nothing less than a “paradigm shift”. The Dutch authorities and also the EU must learn to view political aspects of Islam as a potential ally in their efforts to advance democracy and human rights in the Muslim world.

The release of the report is timely because at the moment the Dutch government and the EU are wrestling with the question of how to deal with the Islamic movement Hamas, which won the Palestinian elections in January. Wendy Asbeek:
“The report will surely contribute to making cooperation with Hamas debatable. It is important to approach such movements pragmatically and to judge them on their deeds. We should have the courage to enter into dialogue.”Thus far, European efforts to foster democracy in the Middle East have often been based on supporting non-religious, secular movements. According to the report, this policy has failed because such movements lack popular support. Progressive Islamic movements do enjoy popular support and therefore constitute much more attractive partners. For many Muslims, democratic reforms are much easier to accept if they are formulated from within their own religion and culture.

It is not unlikely, however, that if western support is forthcoming to progressive Islamic movements – it will weaken the popular support that made them so attractive in the first place. The authors of the report are aware of this danger. Wendy Asbeek:
“The possibilities are limited. Besides  direct support, it is also possible to help create conditions under which progressive Islam can flourish. But at the end of the day, democratisation has to come from within these countries.”

For more information: www.radionetherlands.nl

Dutch must engage ‘political Islam’
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